Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press


The ‘art’ of the deal

No room for arts in Trump’s budget

By Sarah Sidlow

It didn’t take President Trump very long to find the Oval Office’s Resolute Desk, or the presidential rubber stamp. In addition to other symbolic executive actions, Trump and his team have been working diligently to uphold his campaign promise to shrink the federal bureaucracy, and pare back the government wallet.

How do they propose to cut spending? Well, the Departments of Commerce and Energy could be saying bye-bye to some of the programs currently under their jurisdiction; the Departments of Transportation, Justice, and State would likely experience something similar; and the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would both cease to exist.

Trump’s team claims his plan would reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over the next decade.

Considering the country is currently staring at a bill $19 trillion in the wrong direction, many in favor of the cuts view this as a good start.

Folks at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has proposed a similar budget plan in years past, argue that the NEA is a great place to start snipping. For one, they say, the arts and humanities have other channels of support—NEA funding doesn’t keep the arts and humanities alive, and the art scene was thriving even before the NEA’s founding. Therefore, cutting the federal feeding tube won’t be the end of arts and humanities in America. Moreover, they argue, NEA involvement may actually discourage charitable gifts to the arts because donors may be less likely to contribute to a cause they perceive is already being maintained by the government. And then there’s the argument that the endowments enable only the upper crust of art and humanities, not the starving artists who could benefit most from the funding. Oh, and there’s a part about how the endowments may actually result in government control, ownership, and censorship of artistic expression —oh say, can you please be quiet?

But artists, as you may imagine, are not super keen on the idea of closing the curtain on the NEA and NEH. The Washington Post reports each endowment receives about .003 percent of federal discretionary spending. Basically, it’s like taking one chocolate chip off your cookie and claiming to be on a diet.

But there’s also an important point to be made about how the arts and humanities contribute to the richness of intellect and culture that permeate the United States. The endowments have contributed to the creation of famous projects, the preservation of historic collections, and the celebration of American culture. The highlight reel includes the American Ballet Theatre, the American Film Institute, and the Sundance Institute, as well as numerous education programs.

But even though the arts’ piece of the pie is small, this isn’t the first time it’s been put on the chopping block. In 1981, President Reagan intended to push Congress to completely eliminate the NEA (it didn’t happen), and in 2009, President George W. Bush proposed cuts to the NEA and NEH for the eighth consecutive time.

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities be abolished?


Artistic license

Defunding the NEA and NEH will lead to serious consequences for future generations

By Ben Tomkins

The great curse of arts funding in the United States is that the vast majority of people don’t know what they’re talking about when criticizing it, and don’t realize what they’re losing until after it’s gone. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) are not just government programs designed to give artists a paint brush or pen to lean on instead of a mop; they make sure that communities all over the country are populated with skilled artists who can pass skills and ideas along to the next generation of well-rounded human beings.

The easiest possible example to point out is the presence of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in the community. A symphony orchestra is a jewel in the crown of any city, and a bold statement by its citizens to the rest of the world that the people who live there are cultured, intelligent, and know what “living a good life” means. A lot of people don’t realize it, but the DPO has been around since 1933, which means the people of Dayton have continually recognized its value for almost 90 years.

In practical terms, for nearly a century, Dayton has had access to musicians of an entirely different caliber than most of the surrounding area. If you go through the bios of the musicians, you will see some of the greatest schools in the world and names of famous musicians of the past. Neal Gittleman graduated from Yale and the Manhattan School, and has conducted the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony. Without the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra requiring a conductor and paying a salary that makes it possible for him to live here, all of that expertise and connection to the epicenters of classical music gets packed into a moving truck and leaves town.

Then there are the musicians in the orchestra. As an example, I had a friend who played with the DPO, whom I had met at the Cleveland Institute of Music, who had studied with some of the finest cellists on the face of the Earth. The symphony brought him to Dayton, and for a time there were young cellists who were able to take lessons from him. Imagine that—because of the DPO, parents who live in tiny little rural communities like Covington could pack their son or daughter into a car and, in 45 minutes, have them taking lessons with a guy who went to one of the finest music schools in the world. Now, that lesson isn’t going to be cheap, but the real investment that makes it possible is the money that allows the symphony to exist in the first place.

And where does that money come from? Well… go to DPO’s financials page and search for “National Endowment for the Arts.” There’s a large number associated with it.

Actually, there are multiple numbers. The DPO participates in a little educational program called SPARK, which puts members of the orchestra into classrooms. It’s a great program, and it has received multiple NEA grants, upwards of five figures. Again, without funding, these kinds of programs are not happening, and it will be your kids’ futures that are affected. It will be your kids who don’t have access to the training that allows them to make waves in the greater arts world and lead future generations down the path of high culture.

Of course, there is always the question of whether or not taxpayer dollars should go towards funding these kinds of endeavors. The classic example of NEA and NEH funding causing outrage is “Piss Christ,” which is a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. The artist who took the photo (and apparently supplied the piss) won an award at a competition sponsored by the NEA, and Christian America went ballistic. Here’s the best part, though: it’s actually a strikingly beautiful photograph, and if he hadn’t told anyone it was urine and called it “The Glory of the Lord,” it probably would come up now and again as an example of what the NEA should be spending its money on. It seems titles go a long way in the arts world.

This gets to the heart of the matter of objections to NEA and NEH funding. People think that the government can’t be trusted to green-light artistic endeavors because, to a degree, art is subjective. If they don’t like something produced by a grant they will say the government supports bad taste. Unfortunately, expertise in the arts is precisely what this is all about, and without exposure and funding there won’t be anyone around to express a nuanced opinion. If we are serious about making America great, part of that is displaying to the rest of the world, and ourselves, that Americans are capable of making art that influences the human condition for all-time. That’s what the NEA and NEH are all about.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. For more of his work, visit Reach him at

The fine art of control

Government funding of the NEA and NEH gives the organizations political sway

By Don Hurst

There is no debate on the importance of art in our society. The free expression of ideas, the manifestation of the human spirit, and the joy of creativity add immeasurable value to life. However, it’s not the federal government’s role to finance the arts. Funding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is fiscally irresponsible and threatens free speech.

I peeked at the national debt clock while researching for this article. If you are feeling too happy and want to bring yourself down, then I urge you to click over to that site. As of this writing, our national debt was just shy of $20 trillion dollars. It would take every taxpayer shelling out $166,000 for our government to break even.

That number is insane. It’s so large that people don’t think of it as a real number anymore, but you can’t hide from math. Changes need to be made. Cutting this year’s NEA budget of $150 million and the NEH’s request for $28 million won’t solve our fiscal woes, but it’s a step in the right direction. Our country is broke. We need to make adult decisions now about how we spend tax money.

While the NEA has funded worthy projects, it is well known for financing works of questionable merit. The NEA once spent $750 on the poem “lighght.” That’s not the title. That’s the entire poem. The NEA gave 25,000 taxpayer dollars to the creators of Fiction Collective 2 to publish stories of sexual torture and incest rape. There was also the time the NEA funded the art exhibit of a crucifix submerged in a jar of artist’s urine.

The NEA helped fund the Sundance Institute. Do the Hollywood elite really need our tax dollars? The average American isn’t going to receive any benefit from that endowment. If they make it to Park City, Utah, they can pay $20 for a movie screening or $3,500 for the festival pass. We won’t even discuss how much hotels cost.

Even local art is out of reach for many people. Opera, classical music, live theatre, all wonderful expressions of the human experience, but generally too expensive for average families. A regional musical ticket can cost $45 for a seat in the nosebleed section. Yet, the NEA spent tens of thousands of dollars to determine why middle and lower class families don’t attend the theatre.

The 2017 Fiscal Year NEA budget allocates $28 million to staff salaries and expenses. If our goal is to support the arts financially we would be better off by cutting out this middleman. Private citizens donating puts more money into the coffers of arts organizations. It also insures our money goes to groups we value, not to the poet of “lighght.”

The federal government acts as arbiter of fine art, curating our experience with works that carry a federal stamp of approval. These agencies decide which free speech is more worthy than others. A sculptor and a photographer submit a grant request. The NEA decides which art is more deserving of support. A sculptor from Alabama and one from Ohio submit a grant request. The NEA decides which location is more deserving. A sculptor from Ohio submits a work on the environment while another submits a work on the effects of crime. The NEA decides which cause is more important.

In this way, the government subtly uses art as a political tool. In 2009, Yosi Sergeant [also spelled “Sergant” across media reports], NEA communications director, participated in a conference call with artists. During the conversation he urged them to create works that aligned with President Obama’s goals—basically to serve as a propaganda machine. How many would be comfortable with the NEA encouraging artists to only submit work that aligns with President Trump’s agenda?

Art is a powerful force. Art at its best can transform us; it can change the way we see the world. The art we ingested yesterday influences our thoughts today, which manages our actions tomorrow. A bomb can kill hundreds of people, but art can influence whether we drop that bomb or not. That’s why dictators throughout history have used art as a tool for indoctrination. Even ISIS has sanctioned poets and filmmakers. If a government can shape a society’s thoughts it can direct its actions.

Arts are necessary for a healthy society. However, the responsibility to support art lies within individual citizens, not a bloated bureaucratic organization. Find an arts group that speaks to you, that gives your life value, then buy their tickets, donate your money, or volunteer your time. The alternative is to let the government tell you what good art is. In the best-case scenario, we end up with more one-word poems. In the worst, we end up with art that indoctrinates us to ideas we’d rather not have.


Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at

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